Similar to Beirut for me with its volatile political history and traces of French influence, we couldn’t help but fall in love with our first Vietnamese destination – Saigon. The French architectural parallels of open wrapped terraces on every floor of the apartment buildings and the narrowly twisted and tangled alleys gave us an urban intimacy that we hadn’t realized we had missed as much as we did while we were traveling.
What set the tone for us was that we found ourselves in a friendly neighborhood away from the hum of the backpacker area at a guesthouse run by a lovely elderly couple – we’ve realized that the owners of some of these homestays in Vietnam have really influenced our stays, but the couple in Saigon really took the cake. They greeted us with genuine smiles, no hassles and the warmth of being in their home. The room was like our own studio apartment with plenty of space, a good view and a great price – really, what else could we have asked for?
What we were most excited for was our first chance to feast on some of the fresh Vietnamese food! Written up in many guidebooks as both cheap and delicious and featured on many food channels with endless greens, we were looking forward to roaming the streetside stalls on a wannabe foodie tour – not only eating healthy, but not breaking our budget in the process! We wanted to get every taste that Vietnam had to offer and ventured into adhering to a street food only diet… #maybenotthebestdecision In the end, we found that freshness, quality and affordability were possibly not the best adjectives?
Our new found love for the city was only really challenged by our taste buds and our lack of understanding with the Vietnamese language. We tried vigorous hand gestures, playing downloaded audio files and even contemplated picture flashcards, but to no avail. With no real clear way to express ourselves and very puzzled looks from the food sellers, our cravings often went unsatisfied. We were smack in the middle of endless plates of ‘delicious’ Vietnamese streetside food, but we found our appetites unfulfilled.
Trials and tribulations with food aside, Saigon is a vibrant commercial center and it was the creativity that drew us in. Amidst the various small storefronts, the ones that really caught our attention were those of artists and young designers.
The numerous storefronts selling creative prints on their own lines of t-shirts and bags felt refreshing to see, particularly after all the ‘same same, but different’ prints all over SE Asia. But, by far our favorite stores were those that featured funky screen prints alongside the duplicates of major pop art. Scanning these small galleries became a fun little past time for us and we were both surprised how Saigon further fueled our desires to set up our own space.
Beyond the storefronts and galleries were gentrified buildings from the French colonial rule and expansive green spaces, utilized by the entire community. From afternoon walkers, people playing hackey sack with weighted shuttlecocks, ladies getting their aerobics in and students practicing their language skills, the parks seemed to have their own pulse. It was encouraging to see people from all walks of life with an appreciation of the outdoor spaces.
What was even more intriguing to see was how these public spaces were going to be utilized for the celebration of the 40th anniversary marking the end of the Vietnam War, which took place on April 30th. Beyond the Vietnamese flags lining the major streets around the city, stages were suddenly being erected for grand performances in many of the major parks. To adorn the upcoming event there was a resurgence of huge propaganda posters popping up. Some as large cardboard cutouts, others plastered along the walls and all marking the end of American imperialism… Yet passing by the youth groups setting up these decorations were individuals wearing western brands and billboards of the latest commercial goods… creating a stark contradiction from the ideals of Ho Chi Minh and just one more way in which we were lured in.
What we started to understand was that where ever your first destination in Vietnam was, you were bound to be left a bit enchanted by it. For those starting on the northern tour, there is a fondness for Hanoi. For us, coming in from Cambodia, Saigon won us over. There’s a commotion, a hustle, a buzz that hits you more than the decay of any old quarters or backpacker hubs. There’s an odd mix of modernity and commercialism, while the communist state is still revered. There is a mix between the very French, the very Vietnamese and the still to be decided that leaves you curious. But most importantly, beyond the commotion, there was a greater sense of kindness and creativity in the city that really made us want to love this new country that we are exploring.